Affordable Excellence – A Call to Action for Higher Education

America has stated very clearly that it requires higher education to be more effective AND more affordable.

Last Friday, the latest edition of TIME Magazine hit newsstands across America with a cover that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago – one blurb previewing the “Reinventing College” issue proclaimed, “Our Exclusive Poll: 80% Think College Isn’t Worth the Money.”

Newsweek – before last week’s news on the move to all-digital – actually beat TIME to the punch, asking on its September 17 issue, “Is College a Lousy Investment?

The Economist called out higher education a few weeks earlier: “Four-year residential colleges cannot keep on forever raising their fees faster than the public’s capacity to pay for them… Universities that fail to prepare for the hurricane ahead are likely to be flattened by it.”

Wow! Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable for a national news magazine to question the worth of a college degree. To be sure, even then there was concern about the rising cost of college, but we weren’t seeing predictions of widespread institutional collapse, or references to “the hurricane ahead.” Is this real, or is this just journalists selling newspapers?

Having spent much of my time studying the topic over the past six months, I am forced to conclude that it is real – and that poses a genuine threat to higher education. Universities take justifiable pride in their collective longevity and stability, evolving as times change, but doing so at the glacial pace that characterizes how higher education does its business. When we are confronted by some external threat, our natural inclination is to go into hibernation while we wait for this latest storm to pass.

This time, I believe it’s different. Too many forces are arrayed against us. For higher education to serve its very critical place in American society, our educational model must be reinvented, as TIME and so many others suggest – we need to maintain (ideally, increase) our quality while simultaneously making it more affordable, and therefore more accessible, for more Americans. A failure to do so will almost certainly lead to our nation’s economic decline.

Central to everything are cost and student debt. The increasing economic stratification of American society has led to a situation where there are a small number of prospective students who can afford to go to any university that will accept them, and a growing number who are in danger of not being able to afford to go anywhere. It is not simply that the cost of higher education has been increasing at a substantially higher rate than the cost of living – it is also that the median family income, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been falling.

Value, of course, is the flip side of the cost and debt equation – and increasingly, the value of a university education is being seen as synonymous with the ability to obtain a relevant, well-paying job. Students, parents, employers – not to mention politicians – are now expecting that graduates will be able to do something of immediate use and value to their employers.

Yet is it regrettably the case that, since the recession of 2008-09 and continuing to the present, many college graduates are having a difficult time finding employment. Even when they do, they are often overqualified and undercompensated, leading to problems in repaying debt.

Even if every new study points to the unquestionable long-term value of a college degree – and even in the current economy, better short-term job prospects than those without bachelor’s degrees – employment snapshots taken in the months following graduation do not help to point these facts out.

So what does all this mean for Roger Williams University? Is any single institution really capable of taking on such sweeping issues and offering genuine solutions without compromising its own institutional health?

Perhaps not overnight, but in the absence of a significant economic rebound for the country and given the deep and abiding concerns of the public relating to cost, debt and job preparedness, I believe we have an obligation to tackle these issues head-on, in a dramatic and wide-ranging manner.

In an address to the University’s faculty and staff this afternoon, I shared details on Affordable Excellence at Roger Williams University – a comprehensive strategy that puts us on the right track in responding to the concerns noted above.

Through the Affordable Excellence initiative, we will expand upon the value of our academic experience by encouraging all students to major and minor in a combination of liberal arts and professional programs; and we’ll ensure that all graduates, irrespective of major, emerge with at least one meaningful example of experiential, project-based learning. We’ll focus on evolving our value proposition in the months ahead, integrating a fuller range of faculty/student interactions, immersing students in cross-disciplinary projects and ensuring that our students are exceptionally well prepared to graduate job- or graduate school-ready.

Simultaneously, we have announced a tuition freeze for the 2013-14 academic year for all undergraduate day students – next year’s enrolled students will pay the same as this year’s – and a tuition guarantee, which ensures that tuition for all those currently enrolled, and those who arrive next fall, will be guaranteed not to increase for four years for all students who remain continuously enrolled.

And perhaps most importantly, we hope to start an even broader conversation – both on campus and in the public realm – on access to and affordability of college, with a specific emphasis on higher education’s approach to tuition rates, pricing structures and financial aid.

Today’s announcement on Affordable Excellence – and this introductory President’s Blog post – are simply the earliest stages of a dialogue I know will be critical to Roger Williams University and to higher education as a whole. We will explore these issues in depth via this blog and other media in the coming months, and I very much invite your input in the conversation.

America has stated very clearly that it requires higher education to be both better and more affordable. While our natural inclination may be point to our centuries of collective success and wait out the storm, doing so will only prolong the inevitable – we need sustainable solutions, and we need them quickly.

Roger Williams University cannot single-handedly rectify the challenges facing the entire higher education enterprise. But we can do the right thing by our own students and their families by controlling our costs, limiting debt, and ensuring that our graduates have the skills necessary not only to obtain a well-paying job in a bleak economy, but to lead a successful and fulfilling life.